Essential games for music nerds from the Steam Winter Sale

2020 saw the gaming industry supplant film as the predominant AV medium. There are plenty of great possibilities for immersion now on sale for Mac and PC – and titles music makers and nerds won’t want to miss. Here are some favorites, including some that might fly under the radar.

Steam’s Winter Sale is rich as always. This remains the Bandcamp of gaming, not least in that it inspires people to purchase tons of indie and underground and experimental stuff, and to actually download and own those titles. (As with Bandcamp, you might well raise questions about its dominance and dated UI, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.)

Here are some new (and older) titles to consider.

No affiliate links here. I’m just obsessive, and fast with keyboards. Better I keep playing video games so my mind doesn’t go numb.

Mutazione

Mutazione has some of the best sound and music of any recent gaming title, perfectly capturing the charm, poignant innocence, and odd mutations of its game world. It’s also worth a playthrough just to see the way that sound design and music composition blend together. That inventiveness can make something as simple as the percussive made-up sound effect of faux speaking tear at your heartstrings. And it says something profoundly emotional, especially now.

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As it happens, the podcast Eggplant has an expansive series of behind-the-scenes explorations of how Mutazione‘s score was composed over an evolving collaboration of ten years (with European grant money, no less).

Eggplant: The Secret Lives of Games!

If you have any interest in making music for other media (gaming or otherwise), this game and podcast I think are a must. It’s surprisingly instructive just how the team grew together, and how they pushed ideas to make them better.

I did all the research for this and then realized I met creator Nils Deneken really early on in his career at GDC, so Nils, you won’t remember me, but hi! Then I went on to talk about this game house’s early title Johann Sebastian Joust. It’s proof that the group of people who really go deep into the role of sound and music in gaming is small.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1080750/Mutazione/

Paradise Killer

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While a certain major developer is flogging the dead horse of cyberpunk, go back to the dead horse of vaporwave instead. Paradise Killer is just stupidly good; everything about this game’s aesthetic and interactions are a neon-colored trip.

This could have been kitsch. But it leans in so far to its aesthetic and sunny-fresh modernity that you’ll feel like you went on a bender of LSD and antidepressants and woke up in Harajuku and had turned into an anime character. It’s one of the few game soundtracks I’d put on replay. And what they’ve done with the Unreal Engine is pure art. Barry “Epoch” Topping hit the music out of the park, and development house Kaizen Game Works made something genuinely brain warping and new.

You’ll want to “Stay Forever.” That song is seriously a hit.

Did I mention you also collect music as you play?

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1160220/Paradise_Killer/

Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium is perhaps a bit obvious, a modern hipster gaming classic. But music and sound play a fascinating co-starring role in the narrative. There’s the titular disco business, of course, but also – without spoiling anything – ongoing threads about music and esoteric sound woven into the plot. Sound joins pain as the two primary sensations of the game. And there’s a gorgeous score from British Sea Power.

Of course you’ll likely join in starting a nightclub in the game, but dig in for fanciful descriptions of cryptozoologic sound and loving details of field recording and archaic audio equipment.

We can mention this again, because this fall 2019 title came into its own in 2020, and gets an extended edition in the first part of next year. Buy it on sale now, and you’ll get those additions as a free update. Because the game embraces masochism generally, I look forward to replaying on tough mode – the early dive into that I found completely hilarious.

And you can get the soundtrack on vinyl, though … uh, digital I enjoyed just fine. Burn, baby, burn.

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https://store.steampowered.com/app/632470/Disco_Elysium/

Also worth noting, you can grab the full soundtrack from Steam – and it appears to be for now the most price-conscious way to get it.

Thumper

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Most rhythm games now feel pretty dated. THUMPER still feels like immersive synesthesia. It might even keep your impulses nimble in studio breaks. And the rest I can’t say any better than its description:

You are a space beetle. Brave the hellish void and confront a maniacal giant head from the future.

It’s great to see this come back to a two-person development team, and that distinctive music comes from composer (and Lightning Bolt bassist) Brian Gibson. So part of what makes this game gel so well is that it is a creative duo.

Oh yeah, and it used all procedural coding, plus you can use it in VR so you can get sick.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/356400/Thumper/

Post Void

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This is honestly one of the most punk games I’ve ever ever seen – ear and eye bleeding speed run carnage that looks like an old alpha DOS build of Doom went crazy in a drawer and then took over your PC. And it has this single to go with it.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1285670/Post_Void/

Hotline Miami

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VIOLENCE WARNING / NSFW or kids.

Do you like overabundant synthwave music? Do you like video game violence, but prefer it in a top-down view? Do you have a couple of bucks? Good. (Starting with a 2012 gem, the two most recent games in the series and both soundtracks are heavily discounted now.)

Retro Grand Theft Auto graphics (from the 2D era) meet ultra-violence that would make even the modern GTA cower under some covers.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/219152/Hotline_Miami_Soundtrack/

In Other Waters

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This quick indie favorite might seem an unlikely hit – it’s got a mysterious and non-standard UI, and then you slowly navigate alien underwater species in the ocean by… reading. The mechanics, despite some eye candy, resemble some older text dungeon games. But it’s simply beautiful, and apart from being a game that again encourages you to use your imagination (and inspires you to do so), In Other Waters surely is partly successful because of its beautiful score.

Portlander Amos Roddy has a deceptively simply ambient masterpiece here. Its genius is evoking floating colors, producing that dreamspace, and crucially, finding a pacing that matches the gameplay. The experience of playing the game becomes wonderfully trancelike – perhaps the opposite of a lot of today’s game experiences.

This makes me flashback to the game score we hosted here for Osmos, which I should move and make available again, in fact.

STEAM’s third-off sale this week also includes the soundtrack, but you can nab the latter on Bandcamp if you choose. The game – as many critics have already said, but sometimes they’re right – is a must.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/890720/In_Other_Waters/

Control

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I’m going to throw one AAA title in here, as it’s the obvious choice. Take Brutalist architecture, and add a chilling score from game composition veterans Patri Alanko and Martin Stig Andersen. Alanko has some especially chilling percussive bits and … yeah, it’s just a beautiful score set against a ton of ugly concrete architecture with 70s typography and a bunch of weirdo sci-fi references, so I’m in.

50% off sounds good. The music is not there, it appears, but it’s available on (gulp) streaming services.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/870780/Control_Ultimate_Edition/?curator_clanid=33027220

Honorable Mentions

Cloudpunk is a fascinating title that skips all this overblown cyberpunk stuff to just let you focus on flying around like you’re in Blade Runner. Sonic Mania for five bucks deserves special mention because Naofumi Hataya and Tee Lopes nailed the chip music feel of the original Sonic games, while bringing them into our century.

Composer Darren Korb also continues on a roll, but let’s point out specifically that the excellent Transistor Roguelike – from the same creator as the ultra-hyped Hades is like a couple of bucks. You can’t not get it at that price, which is what makes the sale so much fun.

I don’t know your tastes, but the moody chilled melancholy of the score is one of my favorites. 85% off, wow.

Plus, the games I mentioned earlier this year are also on sale. Let’s talk about VirtuaVerse. Oh, it’s brilliant. (Broken Reality is barely a game in comparison to Paradise Killer, but it also has a psychotic weirdo vaporwave soundtrack.)

There’s still time left, so what did I miss?

Also. Steam. Thanks for the Steam Points, but seriously… no thanks.

Steam Points: My friends all got a new GPU and a copy of Cyberpunk 2077, and I got… this bird.